Pete Buttigieg’s Undeniable Allure

The mayor of South Bend knows how to enchant an audience.

by Walter Shapiro – Oct 4, 2019 (

Watching the way that people listen to a presidential candidate is a surprisingly good indicator of raw political talent. In September 2006, at the annual Tom Harkin Steak Fry near Des Moines, a fledgling Illinois senator named Barack Obama (not yet a presidential candidate) mesmerized 3,500 Iowa Democrats. I knew then, studying the rapt expressions on people’s faces as they listened to Obama deliver his first political speech in Iowa, that 2008 would be his year.

Needless to say, in 2016, neither major Democratic candidate rewarded intense listening. Hillary Clinton offered predictable bromides and Bernie Sanders has a passion for yelling. But this time around, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of a small Indiana city (South Bend) half the size of Des Moines, is acing the listening test. His words, even in a stump speech, tend to be more thoughtful and more surprising than the standard political applause lines of his rivals. Elizabeth Warren often elicits cheers, Joe Biden gets the occasional affectionate chuckle, but Buttigieg summons up a different reaction.

I first noticed it while seeing him at a Des Moines house party on a sparkling Saturday morning in June. As with Obama in 2006, members of the audience leaned forward to listen to Buttigieg speak rather than sitting back to applaud politely. What struck me at the time was that Buttigieg was pulling off this listening trick even though he lacked the national political profile that Obama boasted back in 2006, from his electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic convention. 

I looked for a repeat of this response when Buttigieg spoke at the sprawling Polk County Steak Fry in September. Seven other presidential candidates had already made their 10-minute pitches when Buttigieg stood up to deliver his. 

“If everything is going well in this country, a guy like Donald Trump never is able to take over a political party, let alone get within cheating distance of the Oval Office,” Buttigieg declared. Then he added the tried-and-true follow-up line that quietly challenged Biden’s belief in the politics of restoration: “And we’re not going to be able to replace this president if we think he’s just a blip, just an aberration. It’s going to take more than that.”

Yes, Buttigieg got a laugh with the phrase “cheating distance of the Oval Office.” But as I panned the crowd, I once again saw an atypical level of attentiveness. In the klatch of voters watching from their lawn chairsa woman in a blue windbreaker, maybe in her late twenties, sat ramrod straight, the phone tightly gripped in her hand forgotten for the moment. A guy with glasses and greying light brown hair strained to catch every word as if he were listening to the reading of his favorite aunt’s will.

Whatever happens next, this youthful candidate with a long resume (Harvard, Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey analyst, failed statewide candidate, mayor, and intelligence officer in Afghanistan) has already emerged as the political surprise of 2019. 

Mayor Pete, as he prefers to be known on the campaign trail, left me wondering if maybe I have been too rigid in inventing imaginary criteria to identify successful would-be presidents. Maybe talent and temperament are enough. Maybe that old E.F. Hutton commercial holds the only relevant clue that Pete Buttigieg is indeed ready to be president in 2021: When he speaks, people listen. 

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